The Joffrey Ballet opened its 2021-22 season with an aptly titled program that carried at least two timely meanings — “Home: A Celebration.”
On one hand, the first of 10 performances Wednesday evening marked the company’s full-fledged return to the stage — its performing home — after nearly 20 months because of the coronavirus shutdown. (It did previously take part in a Millennium Park dance showcase in August and gave one performance at the Ravinia Festival on Sept. 17.)
While the Joffrey gamely continued its artistic activities on-line during the pandemic, dance — more than perhaps any other art form — needs to be seen live because it depends on such elements as space and physicality, which simply cannot be fully conveyed virtually.
At the same time, there was also another kind of celebration of home Wednesday evening as the Joffrey marked its debut at the Lyric Opera House — a move that was announced in 2017 and delayed by one season because of COVID-19.
The company typically includes at least one mixed-repertory program in its seasons, and “Home: A Celebration,” a line-up of four works that ran nearly 2½ hours with two intermissions, fills that slot in 2021-22.
Unlike the preponderance of story ballets the company presents the rest of the season, the emphasis here is less on narrative and more on the movement itself and the skills of the dancers, who appear to have lost little if any of their edge during their time away from the stage.
This well-chosen, often high-voltage program seemed to be just the thing for an audience hungry for live dance. There was an appealing diversity of styles and moods among the four works as well as a smart intermingling of solos, duos and larger ensembles — a mix that kept the evening fresh and engaging.
The Joffrey’s mixed-rep offerings often include only recent works, so it was a wonderful surprise to find “Birthday Variations,” a 1986 work by Gerald Arpino, one of the company’s co-founders, heading the program, and it proved to an ideal opener. Although Joffrey puts an accent on the contemporary, classical ballet remains at the heart of everything it does, and this work, which was very much choreographed in that style with tutus and opulent jackets, seemed like the perfect way to re-launch the company’s live performances.
This work is suffused with gentle, unhurried elegance, and while it has its moments of bravura technique, that is not the emphasis. One lovely half-lift in the pas de deux features the female dancer running her feet in the air, an uncomplicated and oft-used choreographic device, but it is done here, like everything else, with a sense of decorum and grace.
“Birthday Variations” features three ensemble sections (at first, five women and one man) and the refined pas de deux stunningly realized by Amanda Assucena and Alberto Velazquez. Also included are six short solo variations, and, of those, Valeria Chaykina’s performance particularly stood out, as she made the most of seemingly very little — a series of skip jumps and a few other choreographic bits.
The work is set to Giuseppe Verdi’s timeless music, which was ably performed by conductor Scott Speck and the Lyric Opera Orchestra. It is taking over as the Joffrey pit orchestra with the company’s move to the venue.
But the work that really sticks in the memory from this program is the poetically titled “Under the Trees’ Voices” by Nicholas Blanc, Joffrey’s rehearsal director and principal coach who is clearly coming into his own as a choreographer. This was its stage premiere following an on-line debut performance in April.
Zeroing in to the very essence of Ezio Bosso’s Symphony No. 2, with its evocative repetitions and ostinatos, Blanc summons a melancholic autumnal feeling, suggesting the looming dangers to the natural world, while hope remains ever-present. Action is set against stillness, as solo dancers and duos rise up and flow fluidly in and out the ensemble of 15 dancers, a community of forest creatures or nymphs with their leaf-patterned, translucent smocks. Through it all, Blanc capitalizes on simple movements like a dancer holding the palms of her hands in front of her face as though reading a book.
Rounding out the program are Chanel DaSilva’s “Swing Low,” centering on five bird men, including an Icarus-like fallen figure, and Yoshihisa Arai’s “Boléro,” set to the famed score of Maurice Ravel. The latter inventively juxtaposes the slightly manic, off-kilter movements of a single female, impressively realized by Anais Bueno, against the suitably hypnotic, almost ritualist movements of a 14-member ensemble.